Looking for the X Factor
Adrian Blundell is getting a new dog and takes some professional guidance in negotiating a canine minefield.
OK. The decision's been made to get a new dog. This may have been a simple autocratic announcement, consensus, or the result of long and potentially costly family negotiations, but the outcome is pretty straightforward, right
Possibly not. Whether it's your first gundog or a recognition that your old gundog is heading for retirement, choosing the animal that's going to help make a good day out great or a great day a nightmare, can seem a real challenge. To get some professional guidance I visited David Lisett, gundog manager at the Duke of Buccleuch's estate in Dumfriesshire. With a seventh Spaniel Championship win under his belt (he is the current champion) and with videos selling in the UK and USA, he'd clearly got something right. Having been to his novice trainers day, I knew that he not only understood dogs, but owners too.
We sat down and he started with the obvious question "What's the dog for?" Perhaps an inevitable comment, but fashion or emotion can rule over commonsense. David's view is simple - Springers or Cockers can be great all-round dogs for beating, rough shooting and picking up, but if you only shoot driven game or pick up a lot, a Labrador may have an advantage, especially on longer retrieves. With my mind on some Clumbers that I'd seen working at a shoot recently, I asked if that meant a thumbs down for minor breeds. "Not at all," he insisted. "They can be very good in the right hands, but with their smaller gene pool the more popular breeds might just be a safer bet, especially for the beginner."
"A dog or bitch is usually the next question too," he laughs, "and there's no simple answer to which sex either. I've trained more bitches than dogs, but it all depends on temperament. Male Labs can sometimes be a wee bit more headstrong, but I've had challenging bitches as well. Bitches may come into season a couple of times annually, but a male that takes to chasing the ladies is a pain all year!"
"So is choosing a dog for trialling very different?" I asked. "There's a big difference," was the quick reply. "You have to look for the pups that are quickest on their feet; this and the size of the dog are the two things you can't change - although you can obviously make it bolder and more confident in training. A pedigree of top winning lines is best and essential if you're planning to breed. But remember that FTCh winners in the pedigree don't guarantee a litter of field trial winners - you've just a better chance of finding a dog with the 'X Factor'!
If you're after a sound worker and know friends with good working dogs, that could be an ideal solution for many shooting people, but there's usually no substitute for homework."
Find a breeder with a good reputation is David's usual advice. "You'll see obvious qualities like quietness, steadiness and stamina, but you won't always see the huge amount of backroom effort. Sires and dams should have been health checked, labs have them on hips, elbows and eyes and whilst recent Progressive Retina Atrophy (PRA) certificates and hip or elbow scores aren't a watertight guarantee, they're the best start that you'll get. And a breeder can advise on the probable temperament of pups - the behaviour that you see on your visit can change as they develop but a breeder will get a better picture."
"Try to see both parents or ask if friends know about them," advises David. "Although it's not always possible, I'd go to a trial if a dog I liked was running. It's difficult to hide faults in a trial and their objective is to improve the breed. There's no such thing as the perfect dog, you can only go on how good mum and dad are and they should complement each other. Just remember that most people will accept criticism of almost anything except their dog!"
"Phone a breeder to talk about the parents and explain what character you're hoping for. When you arrive, you need to look at a more than the puppies. What's their living environment like? Can they get outside to be 'empty'? Just like kids, their start in life is crucial and good habits begin young! Is mum well cared for and clean too, is she the shape and size that you want? Pups can be deceptive - small puppies can grow to be big adults and vice versa."
Time to shortlist
"When all those boxes are ticked, take a look at the pups. Check their teeth for a good 'bite' to avoid an undershot jaw, look for hernias and at their general well-being. Split the pups into colours and by sex, then ask if any suitable dogs can have a run in a familiar, safe environment. With luck, two or three may have caught your eye. Ask if they can be taken somewhere less familiar. Are they still crashing about confidently? I try to socialise dogs as much as possible."
While David has the experience to work with all sorts of dogs, I wondered whether you really can guess a bit about their temperaments at that age. "Absolutely," was the quick response.
"If I was choosing a spaniel, for instance, I'd be looking for one that was alert and quick on its feet - not just sitting back out of the way - but people wanting a peg or wildfowling dog may appreciate a more 'relaxed' dog. Even at a young age, you can see how well a puppy responds to a retrieve. I usually have a tennis ball or knotted handkerchief in my pocket."
You, like me, could by now be thinking that it's all a potential minefield and professionals can struggle to choose too. I was once told about a famous trainer who looked at a litter of promising six-week-olds and told the breeder to choose one for him and he'd be back to collect the dog a month later. The dog later went on to win top honours on the field trial circuit.
So, if you're stood undecided with a pup in each hand, David says simply: "Go with what appeals to you. You'll usually get out what you put in. There are very few well-bred pups that won't make sound shooting dogs."
Home time and early routines
Once the big decision's made, experienced dog owners will probably regard it as 'job done'. David was keen to offer a few more thoughts to guide the transition of a pup from its familiar litter environment to an exciting, or possibly frightening, new home.
"You'll have asked about worming and Frontline treatments of course," he said. "You'll have checked the paperwork and about food - many breeders will offer a little of the familiar grub to smooth the transition. When that's sorted, give the pup a quick walk to see if it wants to 'empty'. A dog box in the car is best rather than your lap and if you've a cat box or can make the dog space fairly small and snug, it will feel more secure."
A dilemma I've always faced is what to do initially at home. If you have a couple of kennels, like us, should the new arrival share with a trusted old dog for company or be put into isolation? "An old bitch is ideal, but make sure that chosen dog is puppy-friendly," says David. "As well as the obvious bed in a secure and draught-free sleeping space, consider putting a heat lamp in the sleeping box to take the chill off the air. A radio can be useful for company, especially if the new arrival is on its own.
"The pup will have come from a busy environment with a set routine, so try and copy this initially because a regular routine will help with issues like house training. There's been reams written on this subject but if the puppy is spending some or all of its time in the house, a small cage is a trouble-free environment that will protect you from it and vice versa. They really do need time to rest."
"As for mealtimes, little and often is really important - they all differ in how much they need. The pup has been used to competing with the rest of the litter around a big bowl. But some pups are so greedy they would eat 'till they burst! A loose result at the back end can be caused by too much food at once as well as an upset stomach. And have lots of fresh water available - stale or dirty water can cause a dodgy stomach."
Inoculations are crucial, warns David: "Don't be tempted to take chances by a quick trip to the park, get the injections completed and don't tempt fate."
Enjoy your new pup!
Most people try to do the right thing to instil firm foundations, but David's perspective is clear. "A dog has its whole life to do what it's told. Establish basic ground rules but don't go too fast. When it's a puppy, let it be a puppy!"
For the purposes of these photographs, David simply went into the kennels and picked a five-week old pup out of the scrum of dogs to do the demo. None of them had ever been out on grass before, let alone retrieved anything. It was very impressive but he is a very modest man who stressed that this was normal and he didn't want me to think that he "knew it all." But he knows enough to impress me... I've put my name on the Buccleuch waiting list!
In the meantime, his advice is: "Plan ahead, but be flexible and enjoy the experience."
The key do's and don'ts
* Decide which breed would suit you best - you need to know!
* Do your homework thoroughly - skimp this at your peril
* Look at the puppies' pedigree and environment before the puppies
* If you have the dog in the house, make sure it is safe (for both of you!)
* The more you plan the easier and more pleasurable it is. Make certain that everything is ready before the puppy arrives
* Enjoy your pup and let it enjoy its time as a puppy